Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips

Black Girl Reading

Graduate school was nothing short of an emotional and physical rollercoaster. I spent the first semester depressed and homesick, years 2-4 battling a stress-induced stomach condition that caused me to lose not only 75 pounds but also a whole semester of work. I healed just in time to begin my dissertation, wherein I gained back most of the weight I lost, and experienced a nasty case of stress-induced shingles just as I was rounding third. I love my work, and I’m glad I made it, but as we all head into a new academic year, here are a few things I wish I’d known…

  • Be confident in your abilities.
    • If you feel like a fraud, you very likely are suffering from impostor syndrome, a chronic feeling of intellectual or personal inadequacy born of grandiose expectations about what it means to be competent. Women in particular suffer with this issue, but I argue that it is worse for women-of-color (particularly Blacks and Latinas) who labor under stereotypes of both racial and gender incompetence. The academy itself also creates grandiose expectations, given the general perception of academicians as hypercompetent people. Secret: Everybody that’s actin like they know, doesn’t really know. So ask your question. It’s probably not as stupid as you think. Now say this with me: “I’m smart enough, my work is important, and damn it, I’m gonna make it.”
  • Be patient with yourself.
    • Be patient with your own process of intellectual growth. You will get there and it will all come together. You aren’t supposed to know everything at the beginning. And you still won’t know everything at the end (of coursework, exams, the dissertation, life…).
    • Getting the actual degree isn’t about intellect. It is about sheer strength of will and dogged determination. “Damn it, I’m gonna walk out of here with that piece of paper if it’s the last cottonpickin’ thing I do.” That kind of thinking helps you to keep going after you’ve just been asked to revise a chapter for the third time, your committee member has failed to submit a letter of rec on time, and you feel like blowing something or someone up.
  • Be your own best advocate. Prioritize your own professional needs/goals.
    • You have not because you ask not.  You have to be willing to ask for what you need. You deserve transparency about the rules and procedures of your program, cordial treatment from faculty, staff and students, and a program that prepares you not only for the rigors of grad school but also for the job market (should you desire a career in academia).  But folks won’t hand it to you on a silver platter. You have to build relationships, ask questions, and make demands.
    • Figure out your writing process (the place [home, coffee shop, library], time [morning, afternoon, night], and conditions [background noise, total silence, cooler or warmer] under which you work best and try to create those conditions as frequently as possible during finals, qualifying exams, and dissertation.
    • Your self-advocacy will often be misperceived as aggression and anger, entitlement or selfishness. Don’t apologize. 
  • Be kind to yourself.
    • Reward yourself frequently.  Most of us need positive affirmation of a job well done, but for long stretches, especially during exams, dissertation, and the job market, the rewards elude us; and often given the time crunch, once we conquer the mountain, there is little time to enjoy the view before it’s time to trudge back down and start climbing the next one. All that hard work  in high stakes conditions for anti-climactic ends can take a toll on your psyche. So be kind to yourself. Figure out the things you really like and make sure to enjoy them as much as is possible and healthy.
  • Be proactive about self-care.
    • Figure out your non-negotiables. For me, sleep is non-negotiable. I must have it. I don’t do all nighters. I also generally don’t do weekends, so I adjust my schedule accordingly. What are your non-negotiables?
    • Take advantage of on-campus therapy services. My last two institutions have had women-of-color thesis and dissertation support groups. Consider joining.
    • Cultivate a spirit-affirming practice. Grad school/the academy is a mind-body-spirit endeavor. So meditate, pray, exercise, do yoga, go to church, cook a good healthy meal. Do whatever you need to do to keep your mind, body, and spirit in balance.
  • Be a friend/comrade to others and let them do the same for you.
    • Build community with colleagues inside or outside your department.
    • Build community with non-students/non-academics. You need folks who live life outside the dungeon. They will affirm you and help you keep things in perspective.
  • Be willing to get CRUNK!
    • If the environment is hostile, it is most probably characterized by microaggressions of various sorts.  Racial microaggressions –“brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color– are quite common for women of color, but microaggressions can be used in sexist, heterosexist, or ableist ways as well.  A microaggressive environment demands resistance of various sorts. So do you and be you. Unapologetically.  Keep a copy of Sister Audre near by so you can make sure you’re channeling your legitimate anger productively, and then, get crunk if necessary.
  • Be better not bitter.
    • Fail forward. Being the overachievers that we are, we tend not to deal with failure well. It tends to become an indicator to us of our intelligence, worth, and competence. (See #1). But failure is a part of the process. Unless you are incredibly, exceptionally lucky, you will hit a snag in a course, while writing the proposal, on the dissertation, submitting a journal article or submitting a book. Two tips: take the time to process, particularly for big issues like proposals, dissertation chapters or books. Cry, scream (not at your committee or editor), go to a kickboxing class. And then dust yourself off and try again. Look at the suggestions offered; determine their validity. Heed them or disregard them depending on your best judgment, and then proceed to the next step.  And one more thing…don’t let the resentment fester. It may be well-justified but it simply isn’t productive. Just think of it as hazing, and for your own sake, let it go.
    • A lot of anger comes from bitterness at mentors who have not met our expectations. But all mentors are not created equal. Some will build your confidence, some will give you hell,  some will go above and beyond, but a mentor is there to illumine the process and give you tools to be successful, not to be your friend. So have multiple mentors; know the difference in function; and adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • Be tight. Bring your A-game.
  • Be a light. As you make your way, show the sisters and brothers behind you how it’s done, so maybe they won’t have as many dark days as you’ve had.

A little musical inspiration for the journey…

Alright, fam. Please share your survival tips for grad school newbies and veterans and junior faculty as well.

crunktastic

71 thoughts on “Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips

  1. One of the wisest things I have ever head anyone say is that grad programs are mostly vocational schools, trying to train people to be professors, most of whom are White and male. So, put the academy in perspective, know why you’re there and stay true.

    • Does anyone know the origin of the “Black Girl Reading” print? I love it, and want to find out where I may get it. Thank you!

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    • Perfection!! Thank you, once again, for your wisdom, encouragement, support, and GENEROSITY! Keeping sight of head and heart and tongue can be so difficult in this journey. Many thanks for reminding us how to stay connected to ourselves… how to put ourselves back into our priority list and make it so we can, actually, bring the A every time (or at least as often as we can muster).

      Thanks again. This made my day!

      Nikki

  4. No doubt I will be re-reading this as I progress through my program. I haven’t even started it yet, but already the imposter syndrome is kicking in i.e. they made a mistake accepting me!

  5. Wow, I should have read this 2 years ago! After a particularly brutal proposal process I had a “lost year” of imposter syndrome and depression and sheer terror fueled writer’s block. My question is: what if there aren’t any women of color dissertation groups? Or any other WOC in your program?

    • robyn, don’t limit yourself to your program, your department, or even your university. I’m the only tenure-track African American faculty member in my school (and one of only a handful at my university)…no other women of any race/ethnicity in my discipline, either. So I sought out sisters in other departments and nearby universities, as well as a number who are not in academia, to form a writers group. Doesn’t matter that we’re all over the place – historians, anthropologists, theologians, legal scholars, community activists – what we share is love for our communities and a determination that our work will make a difference in this world. Our goal is to give each other the love, support, encouragement and brutal critique that’s needed to get – and keep – all of us writing. Trust me, that collective brilliance is contagious – I’ve been more productive in the few months that we’ve been meeting than in the previous 3 years combined … also true for several other member of the group.

  6. I almost cried reading this. I am in graduate school part time but it is a rigorous program and there are more than a few times that I believed I was not going to make it! On top of that, I am a first year teacher. So thank you for posting some advice for women of color in graduate school. Such advice is far too rare!

  7. Thank you so much for this post. Although I am technically a veteran grad student, I still deal with many of the concerns that you listed. This was so encouraging and helpful. I’m grateful for spaces like this. Thank you!

  8. Oh my goodness, thank you so much for this! What a kindness and a help! I’ve had a “lost” year of total panic, imposter syndrome and paralysis trying to develop my proposal, and this is just right on and such an encouragement. My own suggestions to share for others are take advantage of writing tutors or consultants, if your campus has them, the graduate resource center at your campus (again, if there is one), any counseling services you can get, and try to get a few friends together for a writing group, even if there is no formal group at your school. Ask more advanced students in your program for advice–you can learn a lot from other students even if professors are hard to pin down. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or advice of your advisor, professors, or even other academics whose work you’ve read. I often struggle with thinking I’ll be a nuisance or they’re too busy, but people are usually happy to help and if they aren’t, there’s really nothing lost.

  9. Imposter syndrome is a real threat. Universities are built on our insecurities and the need to seek validation. Hopefully the day will come when the real expression of talent and individuality will be to reject these centres and find ways to devise our own education. The university should pay YOU for your originality and contributions to society.

    • “…Hopefully the day will come when the real expression of talent and individuality will be to reject these centres and find ways to devise our own education…”

      That day would quickly come upon us if we just value those who have done independent study, holding them up in high esteem for the work they’ve done and the knowledge they’ve gain in their particular fields. We do this to a certain extent with the veteran leaders of the natural hair movement, like Pam Ferrelle and Diane Bailey.

      We would have to determine a way to grade them outside of the system of holding degrees, (not to discount the battle that people go through to earn theirs)
      I’m thinking that it shouldn’t be so hard as getting sick, losing half your body weight and developing stress induced illnesses!

      But for those who are in the thick of it, I love the list of advice posted! It takes a village to raise a PhD of color in this day and age!

  10. my own grad school mental health practises are:

    you have to leave the house once a day and talk to a human, preferably one who will greet you by name. following this rule is the only way i’ve got through the long days and weeks and months of sitting alone at a desk, writing.

    this year i’ve added daily exercise to my writing days. it can be spending an hour in the gym or just walking to a nice cafe (to talk to a human). makes such a difference!

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  12. I’m about to start grad school myself. I think I need to print this out and stick it on my wall!! Thanks for the pointers!

  13. Excellent! except that I don’t agree with “I argue that it is worse for women-of-color (particularly Blacks and Latinas).” The women of color part yes, particularly Blacks and Latinas…well, please let’s not forget the way Pacific Islander women and American Indian and Asian women are discounted by the academy too.

  14. Thank you for writing this – every word is true…. undergrad, master’s, PhD, junior faculty, administration …..
    and don’t forget that there are envious “colleagues” everywhere ready to shoot you down. You DON’T need to do it to yourself ;)

  15. Love it! That impostor syndrome never leaves – Just think of it as a cockroach you can’t quite crush, so have to ignore. Thanks for your words of wisdom to so many wonderful grad students.

  16. And…. remember, you got into graduate school because you are among the best of the best – NO MATTER HOW your current department treats you. Surround yourself with supportive women who will read your work critically, fairly, and with respect for the light that is trying to shine through. Remember that you are not just a brain on a stick – you have a body that needs tending and a soul that needs to soar. Make sure these things happen every week, if not every day. Make sure that you have friends who are regular people so you can stay grounded, mentor someone behind you so you can stay grateful. And never forget that the world needs to hear what you have to say.

  17. I loved every thing about this, but I especially loved the first bullet-point about being confident in one’s abilities. I am a second-year graduate student studying theology/ ministry and was shocked last year to learn of and experience the prevalence of sexism within my specific community, and within the academy in general. There were a handful of times in which my male colleagues made comments that either outright named me as their intellectual superiors, or said it in a way that was meant to be complimentary and simply came across as hurtful and sexist, such as “I think you’re really hot, but you’re not smart enough to date me.” I am a woman taking the same exact classes as these men and I come from similar backgrounds as them, but the mere newness of being a first-year graduate student as I attempted to grasp the world of theology made me somehow believe their ideas about me. I considered myself to be intellectually inferior, less ‘cerebral’, and in a sense, not worthy to be sitting in the same classroom. It has taken me several months, several verbal demands for respect, and a lot of fruitful conversations with my close female classmates and friends to help me to realize that feeling inferior and being inferior are two very different things.

    Thank you for this post. I will definitely read and reread this piece throughout my second year of graduate school.

    (Also, awesome choice with the Des’ree song!)

  18. This was spot on! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and being so sharp I doing so! Entering my second year and fighting imposter syndrome (still!) and recovering from the brutal act of self-imposed censoring and silencing during my first year. Tapping into university therapy services was a huge help, I highly recommend it.

  19. First off, I am white and male.

    Second off, as an individual just getting into school (not even grad school) later in life than I had expected, I found this piece incredibly encouraging, despite not being the target audience.

    Thank you.

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  21. Getting ready to start my second year of an MDiv program and wouldn’t you know it my back seized up on me. With 2 teenagers, a husband, internship at church, plus my admin duties there, reading, writing, preaching, cooking, cleaning, etc. this is exactly what I needed. Thanks so much for reminders of self-care, supportive people, spiritual life, etc. Peace!

  22. A dear friend of mine sent this blog to me as a source of support and encouragement. I just attended my first two classes this weekend and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, but hopeful that this will be an incredible journey towards being awarded my PhD. I agree that we go through a period of questioning whether or not I deserve to be here (I’m still there), but I know that it’s my own fears of suceeding and failing. I will use your pearls of wisdom to successfully navigate through my graduate studies.

    ~Thank

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  24. Thanks so much for this post! I just started a grad program so this is exactly what I needed.

  25. I CRY as I read and write this response. Im in my 3rd year of law school-at an ultra-conservative law school (its a state school so its ultra-cheap and because Im a black queer woman I got a full ride) and while I didnt have this to read, I learned alot of these along the way and am still learning them. I will be applying, re-reading, processing as I finish my last year and look for a policy job.

  26. This article is amazing and I shared it with my other academic friends via facebook. I’m especially encouraged by the comments- knowing there are many in my position and others that completed reinforces that I will finish this PhD!

  27. I like this post a lot. I’m nearly finished with grad school; I’m supposed to be finishing my dissertation this semester…preferably by November, which is when I’m due to give birth to my first child. Also I just moved to a new city and don’t know too many people (well, anyone much) around here. I’m pretty bummed and finding it hard to not panic, and even harder to make myself finish my work.

    Patience, confidence, self-advocacy…all good things to remember.

    • Just as this post is an inspiration, so, too, are you. A dissertation, a new city, and a new baby? Wow. You can do it, and then you will pass down your wisdom to those who come after you.

  28. Thank you so much! Going into my third year of undergrad and some of these things I had already learned but needed to be reminded of and some I really needed to learn, especially: “Your self-advocacy will often be misperceived as aggression and anger, entitlement or selfishness. Don’t apologize.”

  29. Thank you so much for this! I forwarded the link on to the graduate students at my seminary. I hope it starts some discussion about how we define academic and personal success…and what it means to be a womanist, a feminist and crunk feminist!

  30. Hi, thank you so much for this post. Would you mind if I cross posted it to our blog (for the wom*n’s collective at the University of Melbourne in Australia), with all acknowledgements and link-backs attached?
    In any case, thanks again – this was such great thing to stumble on as we get to mid-semester here.

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  34. Given the number of grad students who drop out of school because of needless self-doubt, I love that you kicked off your spot-on article by introducing people to the impostor syndrome.

    I was a doctoral student in the early eighties when I discovered there was actually a name for these nebulous feelings intellectual fraudulence.

    I promptly switched my dissertation topic so I could learn more about women’s self-limiting attitudes and behaviors. Of course I owe much of what I learned to my subjects, a majority of whom were women of color.

    Since then I addressed tens of thousands of grad students — male and female — from Michigan State to MIT to Meharry Medical College. I can assure you the impostor syndrome is live and well on campuses everywhere.

    Like you, I urge students (or anyone) to do less personalizing and more contextualizing.

    Among the 7 Perfectly Good Reasons You Might Feel Like an Impostor are, as you point out, academic culture and the greater pressures on women and people of color to represent their entire group.

    Thanks again for the great post. You’ve no doubt changed some lives today.

    Dr. Valerie Young
    ImpostorSyndrome.com

    Author, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of Them

  35. Thank you so much for this!! As someone in a doctorate program that has a proposal & comprehensive exam looming, this is so right on time for me. I know I’ll be referring back to this in the days and months to come.

  36. Great post! Just in time for my dissertation process. I agree with the non-negotiables. For me, sleeping, cooking, calling my family and yoga. Sanity is a big priority for me and it is helping me.

  37. These tips are not just for women, but all genders of color. Many of us did not grow up in, or excel in our academics early on in these environments so keeping these in mind will help all of us move forward. We are not alone in our journeys in pursuits of higher education.

  38. This is awesome, I am bookmarking it and reading it during the difficult times. Thank you greatly x

  39. THANK YOU for writing this! I just started my MA program and was feeling very overwhelmed and thinking WTF am I doing here but reading truly made me feel better. :)

  40. i’m a first year doctoral student, and a woman of color, and all i can say is that this post will have a permanent place in my office/study space as i navigate my way through grad school. thanks for sharing.

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  43. Thank you for this post! I start school in a week and although I am excited that this will be my last year as an undergraduate student, I find myself becoming increasingly nervous about preparing for the GREs, grad school applications, and the lack of support from the “counselors” and “advisors” in my program. I have taken lots of initiative on my own though, and after reading this post, I feel much better. Thank you!!!!!!

  44. Oh, yes, imposter syndrome. I’ve struggled with it, and now that I’m tenured and teaching at a good university I watch my students struggle with it too, including some of my very best graduate students. The farther away they are from the straight/white/male/educated-classes mold, the more likely they are to suffer with it – but also the more important it is to the world that they learn to trust their own strengths and speak their own truths.

    You’ve offered a lot of excellent advice here to graduate students (and maybe students in general.) Do you have any advice for dissertation supervisors and other profs and administrators who want to help our students out?

    Thanks very much. What a great post!

  45. I just started graduate school and lately I’ve been feeling..inadequate. Thank you. How timely!

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